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"The paycheck," he quips, without missing a beat.
Then he laughs and shakes his head. His face twists into an almost surprised grimace. Mel Gibson, who is known by his colleagues as perhaps the only first-rank action star who doesn't take things too seriously, suddenly seems troubled by the realization that he just cracked a joke.

"Jesus, I'm kidding," he says. "What am I obsessing over? The whole thing. Every part of it. I mean, it's my reputation that's on the line, obviously. If the movie's a huge success, I get the credit, and vice versa. My name's all over this movie, so obviously, I'm under quite a bit of pressure. And yeah, I'm worried. Fuck...Wouldn't you be?"

At first, William Wallace, Braveheart's hero, seems to fit handily into the gallery of heroes Gibson has played throughout his career. He's a handsome, likable loner with a crude, pubcrawling sense of humor, a flirtatious streak, and a moral code buried just deep enough beneath his easygoing facade that the bad guys mistake him for a fence-sitting noncombatant. As a child, Wallace saw his rebellious father murdered by English soldiers. He fled to Europe and wandered for years, seeing the world beyond Scotland, studying swordplay and tactics, and learning six languages. He returns to his village to court his childhood sweetheart, Murron (Catherine McCormack).

The nefarious King Edward of Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan, in a sublimely wicked performance) has declared that English lords stationed in Scotland shall have "first night" rights over Scottish brides--meaning that whenever a Scottish citizen marries another, the boss of their province gets to kidnap the bride after nuptials and return her the next morning. "We'll breed them into submission," the king declares. To foil the English, Wallace and his bride marry in secret and avoid each other in public. But the bad guys catch on, and when one of them tries to sexually assault Murron and put English law into practice, Wallace fights back, slaying several of the king's men.

But poor Murron is murdered shortly afterward. And Wallace the ne'er-do-well is transformed overnight into Wallace the crusader, determined to avenge his broken heart on the entire nation of England. He travels the countryside, stirring up resentment among his formerly cowed countrymen, practically shaming them into rebellion.

The film isn't especially complex or disturbing; despite its oceans of gore, it's a surprisingly old-fashioned epic adventure. It has scope but not depth, mostly because once Wallace's beautiful bride is murdered, he becomes an angel of vengeance fueled by an almost supernatural thirst for payback. Whatever subtle shadings the character possessed before are incinerated in the furnace of his rage.

The picture remains gripping because Gibson, possibly the most intensely physical actor in English-language cinema, acts as an emotional eye for the picture's hurricane of action. Charging on foot or on horseback, swinging a giant, bloodstained broadsword, shrieking inhuman taunts through a face smeared with blue-black war paint, crashing through enemy phalanxes, and leaving hacked limbs in his wake, William Wallace is positively demonic--a force of nature enthralled by his own agonized bloodlust. His masklike face tells his men what kind of life they're in for if they fail to beat the English: it says, Follow me or you'll end up like me.

The cinema has produced a number of terrific large-scale battles, but at their very best, they're lucky to touch the hem of Braveheart's kilt. There are thousands of extras onscreen during some of the sequences, and they employ complex tactics that a lazy director might not have bothered to elucidate. But Gibson lays everything out with such precision and economy that you always know which side is which, who's winning and who's losing, and where everyone is in relation to their enemies.

Not that the film treats combat as an intellectual exercise; far from it. Few films have so indelibly captured the horrific exhilaration of war. Like the chopper attack sequence in Apocalypse Now and the St. Crispian's day battle in Olivier's Henry V, the Battle of Stirling--the film's visceral centerpiece--is simultaneously ecstatic and frightening. When the English unleash a flock of what looks like a million arrows, the camera follows them as they arc high over the battlefield, streaking toward the Scottish soldiers, who crouch down and hoist up their makeshift shields and pray. Then the English horsemen charge, and Wallace's men are instructed not to evade them, but to wait until the last possible second, then lift up long spears to impale the horses and riders. But Gibson's perverse sense of humor never completely disappears. At the start of the Battle of Stirling, Wallace and his men taunt the prim English soldiers by mooning them; as the men flip up their kilts, the screen fills up with jiggling genitals and asses. It's Antietam meets Animal House.

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Matt Zoller Seitz